Avoiding 'Ugly American' Title in Rome

Tourists Must Know They Are Ambassadors of Their Homelands

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, AUG. 8, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The moniker of the "ugly American" haunts frequent travelers almost as much as the specter of lost luggage. In its current connotation, the term is the ultimate slur against gauche and noisy Americans abroad. Some define the "ugly American" as the sort who orders a cappuccino after lunch, while sporting white tennis shoes, or someone perpetually attached to a gelato or a giant soft drink. Others attach the epithet to persons perceived as boorish and overbearing, talking too loud, or constantly explaining how everything gets done in the United States more efficiently. 

None of these definitions reflects the origin of the term, coined by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick in their eponymous book, published in 1958. In this remarkable novel, set in a fictional southeast Asian country during the period of the rampant expansion of Communism, the "ugly American" turns out to be the most beautiful character of all. He is Homer Atkins, an engineer from Pittsburgh, the quintessential self-made man. His hands, scarred and dirty from years of toil, indicate his physical "ugliness" in contrast with the soft, scented skin of the bureaucrats who thwart him.

Atkins, a natural problem-solver, wants to share his gift with the natives; to do so he studies their language, their ways, their resources and their needs. Together with his extraordinary wife, they live among the native people, earn their respect, and generously share their resourcefulness and gift for innovation, making lasting and much appreciated changes in the lives of the people.

Atkins is juxtaposed with the Russian ambassador who has also studied the language and customs and lives close to the people. But while Atkins acts out of a genuine desire to help, the Russian's every move is a political maneuver.

Several other Americans presented in the story are smooth, slick and outwardly beautiful. They "isolate themselves socially," and "live pretentiously" on cheap local labor while enjoying US government-sponsored amenities. These characters not only poorly represent America, but also (unintentionally) support the Communist cause. In the end, these are the truly ugly Americans -- not because of external boorishness, but because of internal narrowness of soul.

A half century later, the book not only pleases and teaches, but also draws a wry smile in its portrayal of the men deemed as heroes in the 50s. How many political novels today would hold up a priest, a special ops expert, a Midwestern businessman and a self-made millionaire as representing the best of the USA? The stories of how these people made a difference are not only moving, but make one fall in love with America all over again.

So after this enjoyable moment of summer reading, I began to wonder how today's Americans score as ambassadors for our great nation. How do the 7 to 10 million US tourists to Europe every year represent us as a people? Like Lederer and Burdick, I focused on one small country and pondered the "ugly American" in the Vatican City State. Canvassing several of my esteemed colleagues in the guiding world -- Italians, fellow Americans and a Brit to boot -- we came up with seven ways to avoid being dubbed an "ugly American" in the Vatican.

1) Get dressed! If only Americans were identifiable by merely their baseball caps and sneakers. Sadly, inappropriate dress grows more common worldwide, and the US often leads in that department. Strapless this and mini that, flip flops and halter tops, it seems that many Americans are confused about whether they are going to church or to the beach. The most famous offender this summer was actress Jennifer Aniston who visited St. Peter's in a miniskirt. Ms. Aniston therefore, can add to her domestic example of anti-Catholic values such as man-free child-bearing, artificial insemination and pro-abortion marches, the international gaffe of not knowing how to dress when visiting the tomb of the first Pope. Perhaps her stylist was on vacation.

2) Don't dis your hosts. Can you imagine inviting a large group of friends or coworkers to your house, and after having polished everything to perfection, chosen all the best wines and foods and opened your home to welcome your guests, you overheard your company speculating whether you cheated on your taxes, or how many people you exploited to arrange the meal or dredging up scandalous stories about your family? Most likely we would not renew the invitation.

Yet every day in St Peter's -- which is open free of charge to anyone -- visitors speculate on cost, scandal and corruption. How often in the same breath have I heard people marvel at the splendor of the basilica and dismiss the church that built it as corrupt, or insist that St. Peter's was built by the deliberate deprivation of the poor, or reciting a tired litany of sex, greed and violence tales while standing in front of the tomb of Gregory the Great, Pius X or Blessed John Paul II. If one doesn't know how to behave when a guest in another's house, perhaps it is best to stay home.

3) Be prepared. Showing up at the Vatican Museums at 10 am in June and being surprised to find them crowded is just embarrassing. Americans are information junkies. Before going shopping, we have checked prices, researched products and charted the route via Internet. It's not hard to discover that high season in Rome falls during May and June then September and October, that it is hot in the summer and that there are no drive-thru tours of the Sistine Chapel.

The Vatican has an excellent on-line reservation system to get tickets in advance, and yet there is an entire tour industry that targets Americans who simply didn't do their homework. And of course, it is fair to assume that any American would be taken aback to be asked who the president of the United States is. One should be embarrassed not to know who the present pope is, given that Pope Benedict XVI is the spiritual leader to 1.4 billion Catholics and has reigned for six years.

4) Rules are rules. The world considers that Americans are one of the most law-abiding people under the sun, and yet, when they cross the threshold of the Vatican Museums, they often act as though they have ridden into the wild West, particularly in the matter of photography. The Vatican museums have very generous picture-taking rules. Photographs without flash anywhere in the museum, but no pictures at all in the Sistine chapel. And yet, walking into the Sistine, one might mistake the Pope's private chapel for a red-carpet photo-op. Flash photos, group photos and general camera anarchy reigns amid the attempts of the custodians to quell the itchy shutter fingers. For their pains, the guards often receive absurd responses, featuring the "everyone else is doing it" line. Other rogue shutterbugs take the sneaky route, moving to another part of the chapel to resume clicking. The guides watch and learn that Americans are deceitful; the custodians see and just think Americans are foolish.

5) Cut out the cutting. Perhaps following the "when in Rome" philosophy, many Americans, who would verge on lynching anyone who cut in line at the US Post Office, succumb to the line-cutting urge the minute they pass the customs gate. Unfortunately they are not as good at it as the natives and end up irritating many with the "pushiness" of Americans. Others see it as a comic diversion to while away the time in line. First, the deliberate air of ingenuousness while trying to slip ahead of the St. Peter's security line. Then the embarrassed bluster when the transgression is noted, and finally, the cowering retreat in shame.

The same goes with blocking doorways and other small passages. While in the US anyone obstructing a supermarket aisle, anathema sit, but vacationers often have no scruples about stopping dead in the small doorways of the Vatican galleries to take pictures, consult maps or just chat. Once considered the prerogative of Europeans, door-blocking has gone global! Try to be part of the solution, not the problem.

6) Rome is not your trash can. For a nation that prides itself on recycling, and gasps in horror at the graffiti in Rome, it is amazing to see how many Americans treat the Vatican Museums like a garbage dump. The custodians of the Sistine Chapel end each day picking up bottles, wrappers, chewing gum and even used diapers from the seats and floor of the chapel. Would we be as quick to leave cans of soda in the Lincoln memorial, or even our local houses of worship?

Oh, and on a personal note, as a bicycle rider, our baskets are not an extension of Rome's trash collection service. How would you like it if someone threw an unfinished sandwich or a half-drunk beer into your car?

7) Open your eyes. Nothing identifies the American more immediately than the compulsive need to photograph. Once the famed stereotype of the Japanese, now the omnipresent iPhone and iPad seem to define the American tourist. The iPhone addiction is such that when one is not frantically checking mail, it becomes a shield between the sites and the eyes of the visitor. Walking through the Vatican Museums with an iPad screen before one's face seems like a funny way to view art. After crossing an ocean to see the Laocoön, or Raphael's frescos, it is tragicomic that so many experience these works through a digital image. This "shield" that keeps people at a distance, also seems to diminish their sense of what is happening around them. Some will push their cameras in between two people in order to take a picture, unaware that they are creating a disturbance. Every guide in Rome has been interrupted during an explanation by someone who wants a picture taken. Picture taking is a privilege, not a right.

Having vented these frustrations, it is only fair to say that Americans are among the favorite tourists of the Italians. They are kind and their enjoyment is infectious. My British colleague had this to say of American tourists, "When I find myself in that mass from the four corners of the world at tourist sites, I often have to chastise the Americans for being too polite! They are not generally the ones pushing and shoving their way to the front. It is more likely that you will discover the American saying "after you."

Lederer and Burdick's love letter to the ugly American, perhaps not the best dressed, perhaps with peculiar culinary quirks (passion for ketchup, gelato for breakfast and as another colleague of mine put it, a disquieting fondness for coca cola with fish), tell us that "average Americans, in their natural state … are the best ambassadors a country can have." They are "wonderfully friendly, unassuming and interested in the world. No one who has ever visited America and come to know the country could fail to trust and respect her people."

Every time we leave our country we become ambassadors of our great nation. It is an immense privilege we have as a wealthy and industrious country to be able to travel and see the world, but it is also a heavy responsibility to carry the good name of our nation on our shoulders.